From suburbs to swine unit

Swine's Promising Next Generation: Supportive mentors, strong work ethic set Arkansas veterinarian up for success.

Ann Hess, Content Director

December 24, 2019

4 Min Read
Lineup of hog barns
National Pork Board

A native of Mobile, Ala., Kayla Blake didn't grow up on a farm, much less around pigs — but once she had the opportunity to shower into the Auburn University's Swine Research and Education Center her sophomore year during a Block and Bridle meeting, she was hooked.

"I was able to learn how swine production really works, and I ended up showing a pig at one of the Little I [International] shows as an undergrad, and I just really, really enjoyed it," Blake says. "I had never been around pigs before and kind of just fell in love with all of it."

After completing her undergraduate degree in AU's preveterinary animal sciences curriculum in 2013, Blake stayed on at the university to enter an accelerated master's program, specifically focusing on pork quality.

Graduating with a master's of agriculture degree in muscle foods in August 2014, Blake wasted no time in continuing her education. She entered the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine just a week and a half later.

After graduating in May 2018, Kayla Blake came on board with JBS and now oversees the health of 40,000 sows, which includes contract sow farms, multiplier units and two boar studs.

The 28-year-old says she knew she wanted to pursue a career as a large-animal veterinarian, but not swine specifically, until she started working with Iowa State University's Swine Veterinary Internship Program.

The first summer Blake had the opportunity to work with Thomas Fangman, a professional services veterinarian with Boehringer Ingelheim, to study salmonella in hog farms in Arkansas.

The second summer, she worked with veterinarian Emily Byers, who was with Smithfield's hog production, east-central region at the time, to study porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome.

"It was essentially the same situation when I took production animal classes. I really enjoyed working with pigs, but I especially liked the people, and getting outside and into the barns," Blake says.

Friend helps with job lead
As veterinary school graduation neared, Blake decided to reach out to her friend Jessica Davenport, who was a veterinarian with JBS in the Columbia, Mo., area and "truly thriving" in her role there. She found herself in luck, as the pork production system was looking for a veterinarian for its Arkansas-Oklahoma region.

After graduating in May 2018, Blake came on board with JBS and now oversees the health of 40,000 sows, which includes contract sow farms, multiplier units and two boar studs.

When the veterinarian is not calling on her sites, she's conducting research on Mycoplasma hyosynoviae and participating in state foreign animal disease tabletop exercises.

"I am lucky, because my team here in Arkansas has a lot of experience; most of them have been in this system for 20-plus years, and we all work closely together to cover this territory," Blake says.

One thing that took Blake by surprise is how welcoming the farms have been to her, especially because she was a new veterinarian to that region.

"I know sometimes farmers are either not on-farm or not around when the vet gets there, but I have gotten a pretty good welcome here in Arkansas," Blake says.

For someone who did not come from a farm background, Blake says that hospitality, along with support from the JBS system and her former mentors Byers, Fangman and Davenport, has been very helpful in shaping her career — a career she sees herself in for the long run.

"You don't specifically have to grow up on a farm to make it into the industry and to be successful, as long as you are willing to work hard," Blake says.

"Don't get discouraged if everything doesn't work out exactly the way you want it the first time. Grit down and keep bearing it, and good things will happen if you work hard enough," she adds.

Swine's Promising Next Generation is independently produced by National Hog Farmer and brought to you through the support of Boehringer Ingleheim.

About the Author(s)

Ann Hess

Content Director, National Hog Farmer

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